Unlike his
colleague Mark Vaile, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer entered the Cole
Inquiry yesterday through a back door and avoided the media scrum. And
everything was better from there.

We still
haven’t got an answer to the question raised by Paul Malone in the Canberra
Times
at the beginning of the month:

I would like to know precisely what Alexander
Downer meant when he wrote in response to this ministerial brief: ”This
worries me, how were AWB prices set and who set them? I want to know about this.”
What did the secretary of the day, Dr Ashton Calvert, do in response to his
note?

From my experience in the public service, when
a minister writes, ”This worries me”, departments jump, and not just at the
junior levels…


Indeed, we
seem to have some more issues. The Australian‘s editorial
suggests Cole “should take a sufficiently broad interpretation of the
inquiry’s current parameters to explore at the very least why taxpayers are
employing DFAT officers at Australian missions around the world to send back to
Canberra kilometres of cables that nobody reads… Australians deserve answers
and solutions on this breakdown of government, and should not be satisfied by
anything less.”

Yet as
David Marr points out in the SMH:

Terence Cole, QC, is only interested in the
minister’s knowledge of AWB’s rorts. No one can be charged with defrauding the
Commonwealth if Downer or his department knew all along what AWB was up to. Last night the terms of reference worked
perfectly to save the minister from further humiliation.

Peter
Hartcher
observes:

Downer is not stupid. He did see and understand
that something was seriously amiss…

Yet, as Agius put to him yesterday, Downer
failed to pursue his own concerns: “It doesn’t seem that you got an
answer.” Downer: “I think you are right. I don’t think I got a
sufficient answer.”

So how is it that the Foreign Affairs Minister,
who was responsible for the regulations that gave force to the UN trade
sanctions on Iraq, could preside over such breathtaking negligence yet still
expect to keep his job?

To lose his job, Downer cannot be merely
negligent. We know that under the Howard doctrine of ministerial
responsibility, the most extraordinary negligence will be tolerated.

Michelle
Grattan
is frank :
“The scandal will not bring down a minister.”

So, “the
most extraordinary negligence will be tolerated”. Commissioner Cole hinted why.
The Age tells the tale best:

The best news for the Government, however, came at the end of
the Downer evidence when both counsel assisting the commission John
Agius, SC, and commissioner Cole himself got stuck into AWB,
indicating it had misled from start to finish.

Incompetence
and negligence appear to be forgivable. That doesn’t.

Peter Fray

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